Monday, June 23, 2014


On Saturday June 14, I took advantage of the near perfect weather we've been having in New York to see Kara Walker's A Subtlety, a series of sculptures made out of sugar housed in the the old Domino Sugar refinery down by the East River in Brooklyn next to the Williamsburg Bridge.  She uses the term "subtlety" in a very old fashioned sense meaning a kind of visual caprice with a puzzle to be solved, or of a message to be discerned, as something cunning or even deceitful.   The centerpiece is a huge sphinx made out of refined sugar.  Scattered throughout the exhibition area of the refinery are sculptures of children made out of molasses candy and left to grow mold, to fall apart, and to melt onto the floor.  When I visited the refinery, it smelled of sugar and the floor was sticky, not just from the sculptures, but from more than a century of sugar refining at that plant.  The old refinery will be torn down to make room for high rise luxury housing (oh what a surprise).  The sculptures will come down with the refinery after the exhibit closes on July 6.

Kara Walker specializes in work about the African Diaspora, and in this unusually large work she confronts the origin of the transAtlantic slave trade in a single commodity, sugar, and specifically cane sugar of the kind once refined at the Domino plant.  As Simon Schama explains in his book A History of Britain: Volume II, The Wars of the British 1603 - 1776, cane sugar was a very expensive rarity in early Europe.  It originated in the monsoon dependent regions of southern Asia and did not do well in the much drier climate of the Mediterranean despite efforts to cultivate it in Cyprus as early as the 13th century.  It was the colonization of tropical America that made mass cultivation of cane sugar possible for the European market.
But there was something else that sugar cane needed if its golden juice was going to pay off, and that was intensive, highly concentrated, task-specific applications of man-power.  For the cane was an unforgiving and volatile crop.  It could not be farmed and harvested in a single growing year since it took at least fourteen months to ripen.  But once it had reached maturity, the cumbersome grass needed to be harvested quickly to prevent the sugar going starchy.  Once stripped and cut, the cane in its turn had to be speedily taken to the ox-powered vertical crushing rollers before the sucrose concentration of the juice self-degraded.  Every subsequent stage of production -- the boiling of the juice, the arrest of the boiling process at the precise moment for optimum crystallization, the partial refining in clay-stopped inverted cone moulds, the lengthy drying process -- demanded the kind of strength, speed, and stamina in tropical conditions that indentured white Europeans or captive Native Americans were ill equipped to provide.  Both populations proved themselves hard to discipline, prone to drink and rebelliousness.  They ran away a lot, and they died like flies from the stew of insect- and water-borne diseases that simmered away in the humid sunlight. 
The solution was African slaves who were thought to be better suited for the hard labor in tropical conditions.  It turns out that they were not.  The labor was just as hard and brutal for them as for everyone else.  The advantage of African slaves was that there were so many of them,  a seemingly endless supply from across the Atlantic always ready to replace those who died from disease or exhaustion.  Schama describes this as the "Faustian moment" of early capitalism, a devil's contract for high profits at an obscenely high human cost.

Kara Walker's sculptures are about that "Faustian moment" and the high human cost of the sugar trade.
Instead of appealing for sympathy and pity for those generations of mostly African workers who fed the growing European craving for sugar, she decided to do something quite contrary.  She turned a representative of the African women who did most of the refining work into a great and mighty goddess figure, the labor without whom the whole sugar industry would not be possible.  It is a common slogan among generations of labor activists to remind workers that their work is their power, that without it, profits would not be possible.  Kara Walker takes that power of production and makes it into a colossus made from the very thing that she produces, refined sugar.  The sphinx is attended by molasses representations of the children who did most of the carrying and hauling in these sugar refineries.

Below are my photos made with my trusty little digital camera.

The Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn was first built in 1882 with many later additions, and in use until the plant closed in 2004.  It was the largest sugar factory in the world.  Kara Walker's exhibit takes place in a huge hall where sugar was piled up to be packaged and shipped out by river barge.  As vast as this hall is, it is but a small part of the enormous complex slated to be destroyed in July.  There was an operating sugar mill on this site since 1856.

Somehow, Kara Walker's sculpture and the destruction of the old Domino plant to be replaced by luxury high rises is the perfect emblem for the transformations taking place in the USA and in the world: from productive manufacturing capitalism to the post-modern capitalism that is more about profiting from moving money around; from manufacturing heavily dependent on human labor to service economies where labor is even more superfluous and expendable; from a world where labor always holds the power of its production to a world where capital is everything, reducing all other human activities from politics to culture to dependency on capital's largesse.

I will miss the old sugar plant.  I love all that old mechanical architecture of manufacturing, and I'm grateful to Kara Walker for providing an opportunity to see it up close, and to give this life-long sugar addict something to think about.

And here I am at the Kara Walker exhibit in the old Domino factory Saturday, June 14, 2014.


Leonardo Ricardo said...

Thank you. Len

IT said...

Wow, what a powerful piece of art! Thank you!

JCF said...

Wow, is right.

I, too, will be sorry to see the factory go, just from your pics.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Kara Walker's sculptures are magnificent. I know the figures are meant to be temporary, but I find it sad because they are so good.

When slaves were "sold down the river", the reference is mostly to a life of hard work the cotton fields of the South, but a goodly number were sent to work on sugar cane plantations.

The refinery structure is a splendid old industrial building. Too bad it will go, too.